School of thought: Florida schools are ripe for potential church-state violations.

It’s a new school year. That means new books. New clothes. New classmates. New subjects. New potential for others, intentionally or otherwise, to impose their beliefs on you in ways that might make you uncomfortable.

Florida has a decent share of cases of unconstitutional religiosity in public schools, says Andrew Seidel, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The foundation investigates — and sues, if needed — about a thousand suspected religious freedom violations each year. In the past two years, it has brought 65 claims against public schools in Florida.

“There is a lot that goes on, and Florida is kind of a hotbed in particular,” he said.

With the start of the new school year, the Madison, Wisc. nonprofit saw fit to send a letter to every school district in Florida outlining potential yet common church-state breaches.

We recently talked with Seidel about some of these.

No, you don’t have to recite the pledge. If you’re not comfortable saying “under God,” because you believe in no god, many gods, a supreme being with a different name or you’re still figuring things out, you don’t have to say those words.

And if someone tries to punish you for that, he or she is potentially violating your rights.

“That’s a popular one,” Seidel said. “The law on that has been settled for so long, it’s pretty amazing that we’re still seeing it happen.”

If a group tries to distribute bibles at the school, another can distribute Principia Discordia, or whatever, if it wants to. Seidel said his group had to sue Orange County Public Schools for not having a content-neutral policy on groups that distribute books to students at schools. One group was circulating bibles in schools, so the Central Florida Freethought Community handed out copies of Sam Harris’s A Letter to a Christian Nation. Because the book has a passage on how ineffective virginity pledges are, the district barred them from distributing it. The group sued and won. Somewhere along the way, the Satanic Temple applied for permission to distribute coloring books, which was right about when the district decided not to allow any outside materials to be distributed at all.

Clergy for sports teams? Not allowed. In some cases, coaches at public schools will bring in a member of the clergy to perform religious rites.

“You’re violating the religious rights of those students by imposing prayer on them,” Seidel said. “To me it’s an appalling breach of trust that parents and teachers put into coaches.”

Science is science. You’d think there wouldn’t be any argument over whether something that’s not based on empirical evidence should be taught in science classes. But creationism still creeps into some classrooms. Obviously if a teacher is discussing religious tenets in the context of a humanities class, that’s one thing. But anyone who thinks Satan put dinosaur bones underground to trick us into thinking the universe’s age exceeds 6,000 years should probably not be teaching science. Or anything at a public school.

“If you’ve got a teacher telling you that creationism is the way and that you need to pray, we will come in there and we will fix that,” Seidel said. “If we can’t fix it, we will sue that school.”

Right to assemble. All of that said, we should point out that students can participate in any religious groups they want, including Bible studies, prayer groups or meditation sessions, as long as the group is student-initiated. 

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